I wonder how long it will be before the first week of Advent stops reminding me of one of the worst days of my life. After what felt like an hour of searching over my wife’s midsection with a specialized microphone, the midwife said, “I’m not hearing a heartbeat.”
It was the first few days of December 2014, less than a month from our 10th anniversary, and we had been expecting our second child. Now we were leaving the parking lot in tears, driving in two different directions. Hilary drove back to her office. Taking the rest of the day off was out of the question if we were going keep our holiday travel plans. I drove back to my desk at church to finish getting ready for Sunday.
(I’m only telling my side of the story here on purpose. Hilary’s story is her own and she has written about it here: https://the918.org/2015/10/14/miscarriage/)
Here was my scripture for that week
What was I supposed to do with that!? I’d finished writing the sermon two days earlier, but… how in hell could I preach it now? How could I talk about the promise of a new baby with my wife sitting on the back row? How could I speak of hope when all (ALL) of mine was gone? Jesus’s arrival is supposed to be God keeping promises. Jesus is supposed to be an answer to generations of prayers, but did I even believe in prayer anymore? What were God’s promises worth to me on that Thursday afternoon? I asked God all of these questions – loudly and full of f—‘s and s—‘s, all while crying and pacing and throwing things around the room.
Then I sat down and re-wrote the sermon. I didn’t have anything to say about hope. And I didn’t have anything to say about God keeping promises. But I had a lot to say about fear. The church I’d been serving for about six months was full of some of my favorite people in the world, but I was holding my pay checks so the church could pay its bills. The stress of that was pushing Hilary and I in two different directions and for the first time in our 10 years, I had wondered if we were going to make it. Our daughter was almost 2 years old and I had no idea how to tell her why mama and daddy couldn’t stop crying. I was learning a lot about fear.
But the angel said “Do not be afraid.” He said it to Mary, to Joseph, to the shepherds, and to pretty much everyone else in the Bible. Someone counted and came up with 365 times in the Bible where God tells humanity “do not be afraid.” So that’s what I talked about on the first Sunday of Advent in 2014. I talked about the things we’re afraid of: work stuff, relationship stuff, political/social stuff, and parenting. And I told them that God not only said “do not be afraid” but showed us the power of taking a risk. God showed up on the first Christmas completely powerless, protected only by a teenage mother and his adopted father.
I spent a lot of time with Mary that Christmas. I needed Mary that Christmas. She was a teenager faced with not only carrying her own redeemer in her body, but also with convincing her fiancé she hadn’t been unfaithful. Her reputation was ruined and life would never look the same again. I felt afraid and lost and I needed to watch Mary feeling those same things and walking forward anyway. It was the worst season of my life, and God was right there with us in the middle of all of it. Everything was torn down and plowed under, but God planted seeds there and started working toward new life.
A year later, the church was closing. We could not make it work financially and the leadership team decided the best way to honor the life-changing work God had done through CrossTimbers United Methodist Church was to let it go and spread that work to other congregations. Also, Hilary was 7 months pregnant. Brokenness and hope, darkness and light were following me everywhere I went.
And there, again, was Mary. When I stood up every Sunday that December and told people God would show up, I was picturing her. I thought about this poor woman, living in a nowhere village in a largely unimportant corner of the Roman empire. I thought about her traveling for days as a pregnant woman, her only company a husband with whom things had just gotten infinitely complicated. I thought about the forces of Rome, and the soldiers of Herod who used spears and swords to prove their worth to the world.
I thought about the child she carried. I thought about the God who loved us enough to come for us and trusted us enough to show up defenseless.
That church was torn down (metaphorically – we were renting), and the congregation was plowed under. But God had been planting seeds and working on new life since before the first worship service in 2009. And those people continue to grow and love in ways I never would have expected.
Our son was born 10 days after the last worship service, and I worshiped more honestly and fully that night than I had in 15 years.
This year is different. See, Hilary and I have always said that our biological kids wouldn’t be our only kids. Oklahoma has more kids in foster care than any of our neighbors. Oklahoma incarcerates more women per capita than any government on earth. We have high rates of poverty, domestic violence and drug use, but we also under-support mental health and substance abuse programs. On any given day, about 200 new children need foster homes in Oklahoma, and DHS tries to fit them into about 65 open spots. We always said we’d foster “some day.”
Then last January, things changed. Hilary and I were standing in the kitchen talking about Donald Trump’s first “travel ban.” I understand a nation’s need to protect its borders (though I think it’s time the American Church asked itself some hard questions about what a Jesus-inspired immigration policy might look like). Our discussion, though, was more focused than that. We were thinking about the kids we were all seeing on the news every night: 9-year-old girls from Aleppo who had lost everyone, 4-year-old boys from Tikrit who would never run and play because of their injuries. Whole families in Mosul who had been used by 3 different sides of the fight as human shields. Immigration safety? Ok. But refugee children? These kids are no threat to anyone and we were locking the door to the “land of opportunity.” After my 5-minute rant about not knowing what to do for these kids, my wife said, “you know, there are refugees in Oklahoma too.”
“Some day” became that day.
We called the United Methodist agency (Circle of Care http://circleofcare.org/) the next morning and started training.
This year, when I leave the office at the end of the day, I come home to our two biological children and a 2-month-old boy who isn’t “mine.” And I’m thinking a lot about Joseph.
Joseph is called a “carpenter” but that word could mean anything from general contractor to construction worker. He was a work-a-day guy in a tiny village, preparing for a traditional arranged marriage and a life that would probably never take him more than a few miles from home. He finds out his fiancée is pregnant and her bizarre story is far from the most bizarre thing that happens to him that year – angels, shepherds, stable-adjacent midwifery, Babylonian magicians (“magi”) bearing gifts…
He is handed the job of raising (feeding, educating, protecting) someone else’s child, and he is told the stakes of this child’s life will reach far beyond the city limits of Nazareth. We know almost nothing about Joseph, but he must have done an adequate job.
I have no illusions that my responsibilities are on the same scale as Joseph’s, but he feels like a kindred spirit. The work I do changing diapers, washing bottles and driving all over the city picking up frozen breastmilk (lovingly donated by some of the most generous women in the world) is never going to be written down in a book, and this little guy is never going to tell me thank you. But it’s a huge responsibility. And whatever the stakes of his life might be, he needs to get through this stage in a safe, loving environment to have a chance. I’m gonna do what I can to give him that chance. That’s my job this Christmas.
So here’s my question – what kind of Christmas is this for you?
Some years we need Mary just to make it through. We need to see her walking into the hard things like she isn’t afraid. Some years we are Mary – acknowledging both the dark and the light and insisting on God’s plan for new life. Some years we are Joseph and our job is to offer hope to someone else.
Thanks James for continuing to provide perspective. We have spent the 10 weeks in Acts 29 discussing “do not be afraid” statements. Last week we talked about Mary. This should be required reading!
Former BAFUMC members now living in Michigan near our youngest grandchildren and just found you via Emily Dukes’ post. Thank you for sharing a different perspective and for sharing your efforts to help heal our world. Lucky little children in your world – no, blessed!
Dang it, James. Crying at the office is frowned upon.
I remember your sermon in 2014 because it was that sermon that helped me believe I hadn’t failed God, my children, or myself because I had gone through a divorce. It helped me start healing. And I will always be grateful for your sermons and service at CT.